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442 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Nabokov Was A Scientific Genius, Too, As It Turns Out

Chauncey Mabe

The image of Vladimir Nabokov as a kooky butterfly collector, skipping through America’s woods and meadows holding a net aloft, takes a beating this week. The great novelist was instead a serious scientist whose theory on butterfly evolution has at last been proven right.

Okay, so Nabokov did chase butterflies—and anyone with a butterfly net looks like a kook—but he wasn’t a mere hobbyist, reports The New York Times. In fact, he was so devoted to the study of butterflies he once said he would have become a professional lepidopterist had his family not fled into exile to escape the Russian Revolution when he was 19.

That’s some consolation, I suppose, for the crimes of state communism that followed. Hey! Sure, the Russian Revolution gave us 40 million dead, the Cold War and other highlights of the 20th century, but it forced Nabokov to choose literature over science! At least we get Lolita, Glory, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory!

While Nabokov was writing masterworks in two languages—Russian and English—he also continued to study butterflies, both in the field and in the lab. He collected over 100 species before the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee again, this time to the United States in 1940.

Here he published hundreds of butterfly descriptions and served as curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He focused his attentions on a group of species known as Polyommatus blues, devising a new way to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia.

Nabokov argued that species thought to be closely related actually weren’t. In 1945, he went further, writing a paper theorizing that the blues originated in Asia and came to the Americas in five waves of migration. Professional scientists considered Nabokov nothing more than a devoted amateur and dismissed his theory.

Until Tuesday night, when a report delivered at the Proceedings of Royal Society of London announced that Nabokov, who died in 1977, had been right all along. A team of scientists, including Naomi Pierce of Harvard, used gene-sequencing technology to test his theory.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Pierce, co-author of the paper.

Using DNA analysis—unavailable in Nabokov’s day—Pierce found that blues evolved from a common ancestor 10 million years ago and came to the Americas in five waves, just as Nabokov had postulated. Furthermore, New World species in the group were not closely related, also confirming his ideas.

“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it—I was blown away.”

—From Open Page (27 January 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury